Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cuba Libre, Philadelphia PA

Cuba Libre is one of the first places I ever brunched in Philly. I’ve been here many times, and while the atmosphere, presentation, and service have remained consistently good, sadly the quality of the food has shifted from exotically bold to touristy bland.

Mango Butter with toast
But first the good news: the complimentary mango butter with toast is still as delicious as always. Even less than die-hard butter fans may have to fight the urge to eat it straight from their knives.

On a recent visit I order my once-favorite Torrejas ($12), a hazelnut and almond encrusted French toast stuffed with Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese and “druken” strawberry-honey drizzle. The honey flavor of the topping is quite strong and it is certainly more than a drizzle. Given the intensity, I’d suggest asking for it on the side.

What this dish really rides on, though, is the bread. When properly chosen, it delivers a perfect combination of crispy (complimenting the crunch of the perfectly toasted nuts) and soft (to soak up the Frangelico-Mascarpone filling). This time, the bread is way to thick and “bready.” While the filling is nice, the bread ratio is too high in comparison and the strong sugary flavor of the topping overwhelms any hint of Frangelico that may have existed. While the first few bites do taste delicious, by the end I am suffering from an overwhelming sugar-coma and have no desire to finish.

The savory dishes also suffer from a heavy-handed sugar shaker. My brunchmate orders the One-Eyed Ropa Vieja Hash ($13), a beautifully cooked brisket, served in a sweet tomato stew with vegetables throughout and topped with a fried egg. My brunchmate is thrilled with the freshness of the ingredients (the corn looks and tastes like it is right off the cob) and there is a generous proportion of well-cooked beef throughout, but the hash is overly sweet and lacks the variety of traditional Cuban spices, ultimately resulting in a one-note dish.

Wanting a hot chocolate, I order the Café con Xocolati, Cuban coffee fused with traditional Mexican chocolate and topped with whipped cream ($4), minus the coffee. I was excited when the server warned that the flavor would be richer, spicier and more bitter than a traditional hot chocolate, but the warning was not needed. While there was a hint of spice, it was extremely subtle and the drink was equal in texture and sweetness to most American-style hot chocolates. If you’ve never tried a real spiced hot chocolate, this would be a good introduction. But if you’re looking for the real thing, go to Golosa, Naked Chocolate, or Sazon instead.

A better beverage option is the tropical juices, sans ice. Pure summer delight, my favorite is the mango juice but they also offer passion fruit, guava, and orange ($3 each). Or for something a bit more exotic try the aqua frescas: mamey, guanabana, or lulo ($5 each or $20 for a pitcher). Not sure which one you’ll like? Go with the sampler ($8) so you can try each flavor.

Between the banana fans and the live plants one thing Cuba Libre gets right is the atmosphere. It could be the middle of the winter and you would still feel like you’ve entered a tropical paradise. If the chefs would lay off the sugar and allow for a few other flavors to shine this brunch could be something much more than simply adequate.

If you go:
  • Saturday and Sunday brunch
  • 10 S. 2nd St, Philadelphia PA 19106 (and locations in Atlantic City, Orlando & Washington D.C.)
  • Phone: (215) 627-0666
  • They accept credit cards—in a Cuban cigar box.
  • Cuba Libre

Monday, November 22, 2010

Smokin' Betty's, Philadelphia PA

When you go to brunch at Smokin’ Betty’s, there’s really no need to read the menu. You should just go ahead and order the Cinnamon Bread Pudding French Toast ($10). If, as it was on the day we brunched, the cinnamon bread has been substituted for Berry Bread Pudding, don’t think twice: order it. Served with honey butter and real maple syrup, the Berry Bread Pudding is like eating a hug: It’s warm, soft, and comforting all at once. The tart berries so perfectly balance the sweetness of this dish, that it could soften the heart (and stomach) of even the meanest scrooge. Did I mention that it’s delicious?

Berry Bread Pudding

But if bread pudding just isn’t your thing, then Betty’s Grilled Cheese ($8) is another great option. It’s served with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and fig jam on sourdough, but I substituted the proscuitto for jack cheese. The sourdough offers a nice crunch, but the fig jam is the true star of this show.

Betty's Grilled Cheese

For those who always like something new, Betty’s offers a waffle ($8) and pastry ($9) that change flavors every weekend. And for those who prefer the traditional, try the Country Gravy & Biscuits ($9), served with sausage gravy & potato hash.


Betty’s also has a full list of delicious sounding cocktails, like the Fuzzy Mimosa with fresh peaches & strawberry puree ($7). If you like your OJ plain, Betty’s serves the no pulp variety ($2).

Somewhat of a newcomer to the Philly Brunch scene, it looks like Smokin' Betty's plans to stay awhile.

If you go:
  • 116 South 11th Street (N.W. corner of 11th & Sansom), Philadelphia PA 19107
  • Phone: (215) 922-6500
  • They accept credit cards.
  • Smokin' Betty's

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Full Plate, Philadelphia PA

A Full PlateEverything that I’ve ordered from A Full Plate has been quite good. Most offerings have more than a hint of a southern flare, which is a bit surprising given how many vegan/veg friendly items show up on the menu; the words “Southern food” and “vegan” do not usually go hand-in-hand. The décor is busy and funky. As one brunchmate put it, “I’m not sure if I’m hip enough to eat here.”

On my most recent visit (one where unfortunately I forgot to take photos), I order the Vegetarian Sausage w/Biscuits and Gravy ($10), served with a heaping pile of home fries. The fries are a mix of regular and sweet potatoes, which is a nice surprise. The sausage is properly spiced, and thoroughly smothered in a delicious onion-gravy. The biscuits are good, but they could stand to be a bit flakier.

A brunchmate orders the Toads in a Hole ($10), multigrain bread filled with scrambled eggs, either turkey or veggie sausage, onions, peppers, mushrooms and cheddar cheese and also served with home fries. Delicious and filling, it’s a twist on the traditional English dish.

While I would like to give A Full Plate a full endorsement, my brunchmates have not always fared quite as well as I. It could be a matter of taste, but it seems that the menu itself is a bit of a hit or miss.

The Vegan French Toast ($10), is exceedingly bready and, while the granola crust is a nice touch, it could use a little help in the flavor department. Perhaps some berries or a vegan cream-cheese filling?

The pancakes are so dense that they "taste vegan.” Which, unfortunately in this case, is not a compliment. Vegan pancakes can be fluffy, it’s not impossible!

And while not unlikable, both the Hush Puppies ($3.50) and the Fried Pickles ($3.50) would be much improved with a little less grease.

On the upside, the Fried Green Tomato Salad ($7.50) offers a fantastic mix of flavors, combining Southern-style friend tomatoes with an Italian-style caprice salad of basil and fresh mozzarella.

While it is not always on the money, A Full Plate is one of the best choices in town when you’re trying to please a wide variety of palates. There are enough options that both your rib-eating uncle and your vegan best friend will be satisfied. Just make sure that your uncle doesn’t order the Brussels Sprout Salad ($7.50) and that your friend stays away from the Catfish Po’ Boy ($8).

If you go:
  • 1009 N. Bodine St (On Liberties Walk), Philadelphia PA 19123
  • Phone: (215) 627-4068
  • Be sure to stop in the bathrooms where you can leave your mark on the walls (in chalk).
  • A Full Plate